Damn Plumage – Richard Kemp

Each morning after night shift I take a bus to the end of my street. I pull the keys from my pocket soon as I hear the hiss of the doors closing, and walk, twirling the keyring round on my finger. Once home, I fix a bowl of cereal and eat it on the front lawn, while coffee brews on the stove, waiting for the painter who drags a dead blackbird.

He always walks by before I drink the last dregs of milk straight from the bowl, the bird tied to his belt with string, his steps shuffling, him crumpled in paint-speckled overalls. We both nod as he ambles past and crosses the road to enter the alley leading to the meadow. The alley is dusty, with rocks poking out like dropped teeth. The bird occasionally gets caught on one. String tightens until the bird makes a brief return to flight before landing in the dirt. I wait until the painter is just a dot against the green grass, then I know my coffee is ready.

Once, when it was raining, he told me the bird had been cursed to spend its death dragged on the ground. Habitually dressed in a pin-stripe suit and fine shoes when alive, he sought favour with the rich and powerful. Chased objects, prizes and social standing. The other birds accused him of vanity, said he shamed them with his yearning to be counted as something more than he was. So, they cursed him. Cursed him to spend his eternal slumber chasing man as he had done in life.

Once, when it was sunny, I asked him if his curse was to pull a dead blackbird behind him for all his days, he said he hadn’t thought of it like that before.

Sometimes I think I should get a better job. More money, sociable hours, then I think of the blackbird in its suit and shoes. I think of the dreams it had and the reward it chased.

I look at the ground.

Contents Drawer Issue 13

 

Image via Pixabay

Three Questions – Ann E Wallace

Hold my hands and
concentrate on three
questions to be
answered, faith placed
in cutting the deck
tripled, laid neatly,
the magic a blur,
the drawn faces a mystery,
I hold onto her words
as fate, the stories conjured,
laid out card by card
in a cross upon the table

Love, fortune, health,
what else does anyone ever
question, the intersecting
trinity of desires that only
the foolhardy or brave
dare to ask within the quiet,
knowing the answers
held in her warm palms
and soft, low voice
will not be what one
asked to hear.

Ann E. Wallace writes of life with illness, motherhood, and other everyday realities. Her work has recently appeared in a variety of journals, including The Capra Review, Juniper, The Literary Nest, Rogue Agent, as well as in Issue Ten of The Cabinet of Heed. She lives in Jersey City, NJ where she teaches English at New Jersey City University. She is online at AnnWallacePhd.com and on Twitter @annwlace409.

Contents Drawer Issue 13

 

Image via Pixabay

Fortune – Steve Campbell

Leaning on the counter, Nate selects five numbers from the sixty that are printed on the front of the slim polymer slip. The same five numbers he’s played every week for the last three years. Once his DNA and fingerprint are verified, his numbers are covered with an electric-blue cross and the Fortune slogan that spans the top of the ticket, ‘Only Winners Have Tickets’, animates to read ‘Two Credits To Play’.

“Fortune and a double caffeine,” he requests from the shop screen that covers the wall in front of him.

“Confirmation required. Age-restricted products. Insert Fortune ticket,” announces the screen. It displays his order in large, bold letters.

Nate feeds his ticket into the game slot below the screen and waits for his selected numbers and personal information to be verified. While waiting for the ticket to pop back out, he daydreams about what he’ll do with the winnings. He’ll quit his job, buy a larger apartment — one with enough rooms for the kids to stop over — and take a month-long vacation. Maybe even six months. He’ll find a beach as far away from this city (and his ex-wife) as he possibly can. He won’t even tell her he’s gone. He’ll send her an anonymous e-card with the message, “Glad you’re not here!”

He’s still smiling to himself when his ticket pops back out.

“Ticket verified. Good luck, Nate Foster,” announces the screen.

Nate takes a quick glance to ensure that his ticket now displays his chosen numbers, then stuffs it into his wallet and waves his watch over the payment reader.

“Age verified. Purchase accepted,” the screen responds as a can of coffee clunks into the collection tray.

By the time he’s made the short walk across the city to State Bank Tower, the can is empty and the caffeine is beginning to clear his head. It can’t help ease his annoyance at the number of people waiting to get through the reception, though. His shoulders slump and he skulks over to join the shortest line of workers shuffling towards the security barriers.

“Good morning, Nate,” the receptionist greets him when he reaches the barrier.

Nate doesn’t reply but uses this sliver of time, like he does every morning, to scan the receptionist’s features. It’s his daily attempt to unearth a facial twitch, a mistimed blink, or anything else that would mark her out as not being human. As usual, he finds nothing. There are rumours that all receptionists, security and cleaning staff at State Bank are substitute workers, or ‘subs’ as they are more commonly known — machines doing the work of humans — but he’s never actually uncovered one. He and his colleagues often joke that their line manager is a sub, because he has the personality shop screen. Nate’s known him for a few years now, and is aware that his awkward personality is down to poor social skills, rather than the possibility that he might actually be a machine.

Once his identity has been confirmed, the receptionist is authorised to allow Nate to pass through the barrier. She smiles at him as it opens.

“Have a productive day, Mr. Foster. The time is 42 past 8. You have less than 18 minutes to get to your workstation. State Bank advises that you undertake some light stretching to improve your posture before commencing your shift.”

* * *

The clock hanging on the office wall next to the TV screen displays 5 past 19. The TV is on but the sound has been turned down. The blinds that cover the adjacent wall of glass aren’t closed to block out any earlier evening sunlight; they are there to provide privacy. Three smartly dressed occupants — two women and a man — tap on terminal keyboards and tablets. None of them pay attention to the TV screen, until a tall man enters the room and turns up the volume. The typing stops and the three look up in unison.

“…week’s winning Fortune numbers. Good luck to everyone who took part. If you missed out, don’t forget you can play again next week and remember, ‘Only winners have tickets’. We’ll see you same time, same place, next week, but for now here are those winning numbers again…”

The screen freezes on the five numbers and, dropping the remote control onto the desk, the tall man turns his back to the screen and claps his hands together loudly.

“Okay. people. Who’s our winner this week?”

“Nate Foster. A 39-year-old divorcee,” replies one of the women.

“Details?” asks the tall man.

“He lives alone in a city-centre apartment. He has a menial desk job at State Bank with a below-average income and just over 10 thousand credits of debt.”

“The prize fund has been confirmed at 47 million,” adds the man.

“Good, good. Publicity?” asks the tall man.

“None. His ticket confirms that he’s declined publicity,” replies the woman.

“Okay. Perfect. Do we let this win go through?” asks the tall man.

“All information indicates that this win is ideal for retention,” replies the second woman.

“Excellent,” says the tall man. “Any objections?”

The three people look at one another then shake their heads. The tall man claps his hand together again, cutting through the silence. “Good, good. We know what to do. Let’s prepare the penthouse and give Mr. Foster the news.”

* * *

“What?! No. You’re joking? No. Seriously?”

The tall man smiles as he brings a finger up to his lips, mouthing shhh. He glances up and down the corridor, and without waiting to be invited in, he steps inside Nate’s apartment. He places an arm around Nate’s shoulder and guides him into the living area. They’re closely followed by a woman in a suit.

“I can assure you this isn’t a joke,” says the tall man in a smooth, calm voice as he walks Nate to the sofa. “Why don’t you take a seat and Catherine will get us all a drink?” The tall man waves the woman into the kitchen area as Nate sits down. “Tea? Coffee?” he asks.

“Er, coffee,” Nate replies, and adds to the woman in the kitchen, “the top cupboard. The mugs are in the top cupboard. By the sink.”

“I’m sorry that we’ve had to wake you so early. We needed to be discreet. Our records show that you’ve declined publicity in the event of a win. That is correct, isn’t it?”

Nate nods. His brow is furrowed as he watches the woman open and close his kitchen cupboards.

The tall man claps his hands together.

“Okay, Mr. Foster. Before we go on, I’ll need to see that winning ticket. We need confirmation that you are in fact Nate Foster. I’m sure you understand.”

“Oh, yes. Of course. I mean, it’s in my wallet. I’ll go and get it.”

Nate is unsteady on his feet as he heads towards the bedroom to collect his wallet. He scrubs his face with his hands to clear away the grogginess, in the hope that he can make some sense of the situation. It’s 35 past 5 and he has two immaculately dressed people in his apartment. They’ve just explained that he’s won 47 million credits on the Fortune lottery. The tall man is casually wanders around as if he owns the place, while the woman makes coffee in Nate’s kitchen. This is all far too surreal. The alarm will wake him up any minute now, he’s sure of it.

His hand shakes as he picks up his wallet from the bedside table. He pulls out the ticket and across the front, in place of his chosen numbers, is the message: ‘Please contact Fortune immediately – 555-FORTUNE.’

“This is nuts,” he mutters as he hands over his ticket to the tall man. The man gives both sides a quick scan and, appearing to be satisfied, he hands it back.

“That all seems in order. Obviously, it will need to be verified.”

“Er… of course,” replies Nate glancing over the ticket.

“I know it’s a bit of a shock, but that’s perfectly normal,” says the tall man. “It can take weeks for it to really sink in. You’re actually handling it pretty well, considering. We’ve seen all sorts of reactions from winners over the years. One woman vomited so badly that…”

The tall man stops and reaches into his pocket. “I’m sorry, where are my manners?” He pulls out a white identity card. The title Direction of Fortune Assimilation is prominent next to the tall man’s photograph. He smiles as he hands the card over to Nate.

“I’m Isaac Stewart and I’m here to change your life.”

* * *

Nate picks up the champagne flute from the edge of the bath and takes a sip. He closes his eyes and holds the alcohol in his mouth for a few seconds, savouring it before swallowing.

He has been in this penthouse for the past two days. Isaac and Catherine had him driven straight here, wherever here was, after breaking the news to him about his Fortune win. He hadn’t taken much notice of his surrounds during the journey because of the barrage of questions and information that had been thrown at him, but having looked out at the view when he arrived, landmarks and buildings suggested that he was somewhere within the financial district.

Nate nudges the tap with his toe, adding a little more hot water to his bath. The warm surge creeps up his legs to caress his back and he takes another sip of champagne to counteract the warmth. This is the life.

During the tour of the apartment, Isaac explained that if there were anything that Nate needed, anything at all, he only needed to ask. In response, Nate blurted out that he wanted a roll-top bath. He hadn’t realised he wanted one until the words came tumbling out of his mouth. Before he’d had chance to backtrack, a Fortune representative had already begun making enquiries. The bath was plumbed in within the hour and it is doing wonders for his back right now.

Alongside the luxury came an almost endless number of formalities, all of which had to be completed before any winnings could be officially transferred. Nate was reminded that this was ‘all covered in the Terms and Conditions’, which Fortune were more than happy to provide a duplicate copy of, if required.

His ticket is currently being scrutinised for signs of tampering or counterfeiting and it will be returned to him as soon as it had been cleared. Apparently, most winners like to frame their tickets as a memento of their win.

Nate had lost count of the amount of times his signature has been provided for verification; he’s written it with a pen, without a pen, and even blindfolded. He’s also taken part in numerous informal interviews. Every conceivable piece of personal information has been requested. And has been supplied. He’s confirmed his date of birth, his first school, the names of his childhood sweethearts, and parents’ places of birth. All of this information will be collated to verify his identity. Isaac and his team have taken photographs of Nate from numerous angles and checked these against his passport, driver’s license, and CCTV footage.

The Fortune team apologised for the inconvenience but explained that there had been numerous instances of people masquerading as winners. They explained that there had been hundreds of attempts by criminals to get their hands on the winnings.

As Nate had declined publicity, his whereabouts would remain a secret for the time being. He was advised not to contact anyone while everything was being prepared for his new life. The press could be very intrusive and were always hungry for a Fortune exclusive, so it was better to be safe than sorry.

Although the continuous questioning and exile within this hotel room have been inconvenient, Fortune has been extremely helpful and always on hand to answer questions or concerns. They’ve kept him updated every few hours, right up until about an hour ago, when they confirmed that the flights for his holiday had been booked. He is set to fly out tomorrow morning.

Nate had often wondered how winners managed to remain hidden from the public eye, and it turned out that it was due to the meticulous planning of the Assimilation Team at Fortune. Along with taking care of his day-to-day needs and concerns, their job was to provide a cover story for the first few days after his win. They contacted his employer the morning they’d arrived at his apartment and explained that there had been an unexpected death in the family. This, they said, would give him a few days of freedom and time to plan what he wanted to do next. Nate has no intention of going back to work, but at least he now has a few days grace and, more importantly, he isn’t drawing attention to himself by not being at work. The team will contact State Bank at the end of the week to officially hand in Nate’s notice due to stress. The team has reassured him that they deal with HR departments on an almost weekly basis and Nate has nothing to worry about.

Nate’s fingers and toes start to wrinkle, so he reluctantly climbs out of the bath and wraps himself in a bathrobe. Strolling through into the bedroom, he feels oddly at home in his surroundings. He turns on the TV to add background noise to the stillness of the penthouse, but immediately turns it back off. The noise is jarring. He realises that he needs this peace and quiet.

It is early evening outside — 45 past 8 — and almost curfew. Nate watches the lights flick on within city apartments while the street-level lights begin to diminish as the sun sets. He realises this is the last time he’ll see this sun setting. From now on, every day will end with a sunset free of pollution, drones, and skyscrapers.

Moving back across the room, the plush carpet pushing up between his toes, Nate sits down on the edge of the bed. The effects of the hot bath and alcohol nudge him towards sleep. He’ll dream of breathing in sea mist that rolled in across an unspoilt beach, as water laps at his feet.

* * *

The blinds are open to reveal the penthouse bedroom through the wall of one-way glass. Isaac and his team watch the bathroom door open and Nate walk into the room wrapped in a bathrobe.

Isaac looks at the tablet in his hand and swipes through several pages before asking, “Do we have any issues to report with the sub?”

“All the information suggests it has been absorbed and it is behaving perfectly. There was one minor hiccup initially. But the cover story held; his colleagues put the odd behaviour down to the bereavement,” replies the man. “There are no other problems, and it is integrating perfectly. Work productivity has been set at the same, pre-swap-out levels.”

“All transactions regarding Fortune games have been removed from Nate’s bank account and his ticket has been erased,” adds one of the women.

“Good, good. Before we do this, does anyone have any concerns?” Isaac turns to look across the faces of his team.

No one speaks.

Isaac turns back and watches Nate for a moment longer before tapping the tablet. He stands unmoved for the time it takes the room to fill with gas and leave Nate slumped on the bed.

“Vitals?” he asks over his shoulder.

“I have confirmed flatlines,” replies one of the women.

“Good, good. Let’s take a break and start the clean up when we get back.” Isaac turns his back to the windows and taps the tablet to close the blinds, hiding the penthouse from view. On the way out of the office, he picks up Nate’s ticket from his desk, which is blank apart from the Fortune slogan across the top: ‘Only winners have tickets’.

Contents Drawer Issue 13

 

Image via Pixabay

The Man from Paris – Denis J Underwood

The man from Paris stood at the cliff’s edge, shielding his eyes. Bone white ships dotted the gleaming Mediterranean. His brother had brought him here to look down at the sea before the hunters guided their horses inland.

The man from Paris knew little about Algeria. He did not read books to prepare for his trip. What he did know, his younger brother had written in letters, and his brother had only written twice: once in 1932 after settling in Algeria and a year ago inviting him to visit. So, in August of 1954, the man from Paris boarded a boat in Marseille and his brother picked him up in Algiers. There he saw the crowded market, the Mauresque women with their heads covered. Aren’t they hot? he wondered. A rough road along the coast brought them to the town of Novi where their first stop was the viticulture coop.

This, the man from Paris thought was an opportunity for his brother to brag about his vineyards, his lands, his success. They drank local red wine which the man from Paris thought satisfactory, but mostly bland, and his brother introduced him to men of the village, the Pieds-noir.

After three days of enjoying the comfort of his brother’s home, the man from Paris prepared for the hunt. He lifted his rifle, submitting it to his brother for inspection.

“Will this do?” He wanted his brother to acknowledge the quality; this was a fine, expensive rifle. He had borrowed it from a friend.

“Did you clean it?”

“Yes, in Paris.”

“Clean it again.”

The man from Paris shrugged, wrapped the rifle in a cloth and then placed it in his pack.

“You ready to face a boar?” his brother asked.

“Of course.”

“Ever killed one?”

“In Provence.”

“Little, right?”

“No, big.”

His brother’s face alighted with a knowing smirk, the one he’d always flashed after detecting one of his lies.

“Babies compared to these,” his brother said.

“They all die the same.”

“Not always.”

*      *      *

The riders crossed hills covered with dried grasses and scrub brush. Ahead of the horses, dogs darted in and out of shadows. After a lunch of sliced sausage, crusty bread, dried figs, and Medjool dates, the hunters pulled rifles from their packs and trudged off, following the dogs and the Arab men with their long sticks.

The man from Paris started next to his brother, the two slowly drifting apart. The other hunters fanned out. Soon, he was on his own, advancing toward the ridge where he would wait for boar chased toward his station. At the crest, he stopped and surveyed the land, his canvas hunting jacket wet with sweat. Soon he heard barking coming from the valley below.

The barking steadily became louder and then a boar shot out of the tall grass beneath some trees.

Could something so big really move so fast?

The boar rushed up the slope toward him, its snout plunging through the thick underbrush.

The baying dogs were not far behind.

The man from Paris shouldered his rifle, leaned forward and aimed. He sighted the boar slightly above the head. The rifle barrel jerked up and down with each of his breaths.
He fired and the shot went high. The boar was almost to him. He pulled the trigger again and the rifle jammed.

He had once been a wonderful hunter of birds. But birds were very different than this. More of a sweeping motion with the weapon and if you missed, it really didn’t matter.

That had been long ago, before he’d moved to Paris. He braced himself holding the hot rifle barrel with both hands. He tried to time it right, swinging the butt down. He missed, and the boar slammed into him, its massive head and neck lifting him off his feet.

When he came to, he felt as if he were submerged in warm water. Two men were with him. He could hear his brother shouting. One man tore off the man from Paris’ blood soaked pants. The other man pressed his hands into the crease between his leg and groin. Blood spurted in long strings from between the man’s fingers. There were other wounds but those were nothing compared to the mess between his legs.

The men continued to press the wound. One told him not to worry, “Ça va, c’est rien!”

Then he overheard them whispering about how a tourniquet wouldn’t work.

“We’ll make it to the village,” his brother said. The man from Paris knew better. They had ridden over two hours. The tusk hit his artery. He was thinking so clearly now.

“Don’t leave me here,” he said.

“Of course we won’t leave you.”

*      *      *

They hefted him, belly down, onto his horse. The man from Paris’ head bounced off the horse’s side as it went. One man jogged along, propping him up. The horse’s flank, slick with blood, glistened in the sun.

The man from Paris’ whole body felt heavy. He strained to lift his head and look out across the land. He felt the horse’s power and it seemed limitless compared to his own waning strength. His brother came alongside to talk in his ear.

“Take me back to France,” the man from Paris said. “Promise.”

His brother nodded, acknowledging he understood what was expected.

When the man from Paris could no longer lift his head, he watched the trail beneath him. The long, dried grasses flicked back and forth and the dust whorled away from the horse’s hooves. He watched this as long as he could, waiting for the sea.

 

Denis J. Underwood’s stories have appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Identity Theory, Gravel Magazine, The First Line, and elsewhere. His chapbook, Carolina, was published by Wind River Press. Grave Matters, a feature film he co-wrote and co-produced, has been in post-production a few years too many. The project was featured on the Sundance Channel’s 24 Frames News.

 

Contents Drawer Issue 13

 

Image: Denis J Underwood

Adonis Blue – Debbie Taggio

Brilliant sapphire-blue wings beat in eight motion, tinkling against the glass, instinct searching for escape. Leo slipped an old envelope under the rim, and placed the butterfly on an evergreen that shivered in the breeze. Flitting, fluttering, kissing a buttercup with a quiver of air, brushing a four-leaf clover with the fringes of its wings, never settling, always on the move – onto the next thing.

Leo promised himself it would be different this time, he wouldn’t allow the rust of routine to corrode his heart or wrap its oxidised arms around his windpipe. Screams and laughter of children on lunchtime break carried on the wind, sharp little daggers of sound piercing his ear drums. He’d never wanted children, never wanted to be caught in the Venus fly trap of parenthood, told Sarah as much, now he’d become the butterfly in the glass, knocking against the sides of his own cell.

The butterfly skitted across the yard, pursuing its mate, relentless in the chase. Leo recalled the first time he’d seen Sarah, burrowed in a corner of the working men’s club, the wide-eyed rabbit hiding in her hole. He was drawn to the quiet ones, they were such a contrast to the pawing and pinching he was used to. Leo peered around the curtain, assessing that night’s crowd, he spotted her sheltering amongst the usual assortment of thick-waisted bodies, wearing too-tight clothes, their flesh bulging like splitting sausages, and brides’ up for a last hurrah before years of disappointment and comfort eating morphed them into their mothers.

Leo’s mother had been disappointed; by love and life. His father married his mother in a whirlwind of suppressed passion, took her virginity, and left four months later, the morning after she’d given him the happy news. Leo recalled the venom with which she’d told him the story of his father’s adored three outside children; she spat out words like sharp little arrows, to sting and wound.

She no longer remembered a son, calling Leo by his father’s name, he fended off her amorous advances like a child fighting a frisky dog. Leo’s deftness in batting off horny women deserted him when dealing with his own mother, embarrassment erupted into shame, shame and anger, ending with her pleading, don’t leave me, please, stay, stay, and nurses running into the room to calm her with soothing baby talk; soft voices comforting a hard voiced woman.

Growing up, her astringency seeped into his pores, dissolving his flesh like acid. She gorged on the bitter taste of life, reopening old wounds, picking over bones as he tried to recycle his broken pieces. You’ll never amount to anything, you’re just like your father – her cultish mantra only stopping when she’d forgotten who he was, forgotten who she was.

Mantra turned prophecy.

Leo had no perceptible talents, he was a late-twenties slacker hopping from low-paid job to low-paid job, so when he saw an advert pasted to a wall above the urinals in the working mens’ club promising, all the money and women you could ever want, he applied. He welcomed hot wine breath tickling his ears and sardine women jostling to get their hands on his be-thonged body. Gyrating, grinding hips, blink-of-an-eye flashes teased, enticed, enthralled, and fingertips slid between the furrows of his baby-oiled chest. The women intoxicated by a heady mix of twofer offers on jugs of Sangria and Leo’s brooding intensity felt it in their hearts, and felt it in their parts.

The butterfly passed over the clover as Leo nipped its stem between thumb and forefinger, his mother would’ve called it a shamrock and crossed herself for good measure. He wished he’d had a buttercup childhood of golden reflected light, of well-done stars and head ruffles, but his metamorphosis from boy to man had created a cold blooded butterfly, tasting with his feet before walking away.

Leo stuck a post-it to the dining room table, I’m sorry, he wrote, and as the corner curled towards the light, it revealed a carbon-copy apology etched into the soft teak wood where he placed the four-leaf clover.

 

Debbie Taggio has had pieces of flash fiction published in The Drabble and as part of National Flash Fiction Day and is a finalist in The Edinburgh International Flash Fiction Awards, the winner of which will be announced at an awards dinner on 29th September 2018. Debbie has also started an MA in creative writing at Birmingham City University.

 

Contents Drawer Issue 13

 

Image via Pixabay

Who throws a shoe? Who? – Olivia Fitzsimons

The child’s rubbery raggedy black trainer that lies in the middle of the country road and we all drive around to avoid. Why do we do that? Swerving out of the way like the imprint of the tiny body it belonged to is still attached. I want to stop and pick it up and put it in the car. Find its match. Cradle it.

Or the brown battered boot left on the motorway, beached in an almost step out of the way move – did they describe the owner on the news that I don’t listen to, now that I have children of a certain age, who soak up information, and ask the uncomfortable questions,

“Why did they jump?”

“Where are their parents?”

“Is that boy dead on the beach?”

Then there’s a slipper in town, that reminds me of someone who got chased, lost in mid-scarper. Or maybe it was just popped-out-to-get-milk-hung-over and there’s the ex with the new girlfriend looking like a magazine cover, love island contoured and everything. Just my luck.

The black high heel, patent, sitting fragile perfect. Crows strut around it studying their shimmering reflection as they circle in and out in a vindictive dance. What would you say to the one that got away? Why do you never come back for your shoes? Are you all Cinderella’s, glass slippers left behind in the rush back. Did the dappled gravel road knock you off balance as you ran away?

In New Orleans I once saw a perfect pair of Mary Jane’s set against a lamp post, waiting to be reclaimed, while water still sat in the levies. Discarded sofas floated away between buildings, above people huddled inside hiding, unable to forget the wrath of the waves. I hope you swam away like a mermaid. I hope you smiled despite the debris settled soft on your city. You placed your shoes at a street altar. I hope when I return they are gone, and your shoeless feet still dance on the sidewalk, prayers answered, hearts raised and all that was lost recovered.

 

OLIVIA FITZSIMONS lives in County Wicklow, Ireland. Her flash fiction has appeared/forthcoming in the Honest Ulsterman, Crannog, Boyne Berries, Cabinet of Heed, Solidalgo, Cease Cows, FlashBack Fiction and Deracine. Shortlisted for the Sunday Business Post/ Penguin Short Story Prize 2017. Long listed for the Fish Short Story Prize 2018. Shortlisted for the Retreat West Flash Fiction Prize in 2017. She was selected as a mentee for the WORDS Ireland/Wicklow Co Co National Mentoring Programme 2018. @oneflawediris

 

Contents Drawer Issue 13

 

Image via Pixabay

Streakers – Barry Peters

Maybe I should have stripped
with my friends in the midnight
moonlight on the 12th fairway
of that public golf course,

tossed aside cut-offs and doobie
brothers t-shirt, unpeeled striped
tube socks, chucked high-top
converse and – debauchery! —

bound down the bermuda
barefoot, naked in the garden,
in sober joy, one final romp
before the dawn of adulthood.

Instead, I remained in the sand
trap fully dressed, enmeshed
in envy, watching their white
backs and bottoms, alabaster

in the mythical night.
Decades later, translucence:
if I could have unwedged
myself from that bunker,

maybe now I’d be the kind
of man who could find courage,
somewhere, even in the safety
of the righteous mob.

 

Barry Peters is a writer and teacher in Durham, NC, USA. Recent/forthcoming: Best New Poets 2018, Baltimore Review, Connecticut River Review, Miramar, Rattle, The Southampton Review, Sport Literate.

 

Contents Drawer Issue 13

 

Image via Pixabay

The Species Assimilation Unit – Mike Fox

Elijah grasped his fork tentatively and aimed it at his plate. Instead it scraped a jagged line in the varnish of the table top.

‘Oh Christ,’ he said. The joints in his chair groaned beneath his substantial bottom as he squirmed with humiliation.

‘Don’t worry, it could have happened to any of us,’ Ravi murmured reassuringly.

‘But it doesn’t happen to you,’ Elijah insisted . He peered mournfully at the tip of his trunk as though it had betrayed him. ‘Those opposable thumbs might just as well have been designed for a knife and fork. Proboscides have had millennia to develop fine motor skills, and frankly we aren’t up to it.’

‘We all have our challenges,’ Ravi said wearily. Suddenly his eyes showed only dismay. ‘At this very moment I can hardly restrain myself from shinning up that lamp stand and picking out the light bulb. And the cameras caught me last time so I’m on my final warning. I tried to explain that my ancestors had been doing much the same thing since before recorded history, but they said that was irrelevant.’

‘I realise it’s hard for everyone,’ said Elijah, ‘but no-one enjoys my table manners. The other day I got over-excited at a bowl of lettuce and sucked up the entire table cloth. On my first work placement too. I knew it was over in that instant. You must admit that an elephant’s trunk is poorly designed for most domestic applications.’

‘I can see it must be frustrating,’ Ravi conceded. ‘And I can see that as primates we’re rather more like them than most animals. But that in itself can create confusion. To be honest I think Darwin muddied the waters, and then the whole DNA thing made it worse.’ He reached absently for a banana, but forgot to peel it before taking a bite.

They all lapsed into silence with the exception of Abeo, a tiger just out of cubhood, who was purring involuntarily over the thought of cream with his pudding. He stopped when Johnson the wallaby gave him a gentle dig in the ribs.

‘Thanks, friend,’ he said. ‘It’s a difficult habit to break.’

They had all made strenuous efforts to get here, trotting, leaping or flying over hundreds of dusty or snow-frozen miles before braving seas in the flimsiest of vessels. For most of them this had been the worst part, although Olaf the polar bear had managed to stow himself in the rear of a refrigeration lorry, and so found the ferry crossing rather to his taste. But now, collectively, they asked themselves if it had been worth the effort.

Most of them had heard of the Species Assimilation Unit, but few had anticipated any particular problem in passing through. Elijah, for instance, possessed an advanced diploma in industrial haulage, as well as a proven record of delivery to inaccessible areas. Despite the climate, he’d expected to be a hit in the Western Isles. Ravi simply knew he could do better than most picking fruit in Kent. After all, he’d built a career from pretty well identical activities. Admittedly it might be tricky not to nibble a percentage, but surely his speed and agility would make up for that? Olaf, meanwhile, had envisaged a secure future as a lifeguard in Cornwall. Who else, he reasoned, would want the winter shift?

None of them, however, had reckoned on the criteria. The six-phase English grammar test was proving particularly humiliating. Before leaving their birthplace not a soul amongst them had felt prompted to learn parts of speech, let alone gerunds: why bother when often as not a roar or a bark or even a grunt would suffice? And as for the ‘evidence of allegiance’, neither had they thought to brush up on Tudor history, or nuances of characterisation in The Old Curiosity Shop. It was one stumbling block after another.

‘The inquisitors have no empathy,’ said Johnson bitterly. ‘Marsupials bounce. That’s what we do. No-one back home called it hyperactive attention disorder.’

‘You’re right,’ Elijah agreed. ‘They’re no more than speciphobes.’

There was a moody silence, then Ayo the zebra spoke up. ‘Still guys, we just have to face it – it’s one size fits all here. We’ll only be allowed to stay if we give them what they want.’

The silence became resentful. Ayo had proved a hit with the children in the nearby llama sanctuary and was confident a contract would follow. And it didn’t help that he kept banging on about how delicious he found the grass there.

Nocturnus, a western screech owl, kept his own counsel. For one thing everyone cringed visibly at the sound of his voice. For another, he had more or less been guaranteed a permanent position after a night security placement, having inadvertently foiled a burglary simply by exercising his vocal chords. He was pleased, naturally, but sensitive to the feelings of those still jumping through ever diminishing hoops.

The Unit was an implacable building, designed as if its whole purpose was to confound. Cameras perched everywhere, with ineligibility lurking in even the most mundane activity. Table manners, toilet habits, sleeping arrangements, even the viability with which you negotiated the stairs: all were under surveillance; all could be your downfall.

And, they unanimously agreed, the dress code stank. ‘Who needs a bloody onesie when you’ve been dressed in fur from birth?’ Olaf, referring to the standard compulsory issue overall, asked no-one in particular. He missed the Arctic air, and the muggy climate of Kent tended to inflame his rhetoric.

‘Or indeed feathers,’ murmured Nocturnus.

‘Or a decent hide,’ put in Johnson.

It wasn’t the same for everyone, though. Racehorses seeking entry met no hurdles, at least metaphorically. But then they were thoroughbreds. Not only that, they were actively encouraged to propagate – as if there weren’t enough of them already.

It just wasn’t fair.

They were forced to admit, though, that the south-east coast was getting uncomfortably crowded. Everyone seemed to head for it now. It existed in one of the few strips of climate that could still support multiple life forms, and had managed to remain neutral while wars broke out all around. And so the unit came into being. Someone, somewhere, had eventually recognised that every diaspora needs a destination. And now there were diasporas everywhere.

But there had to be terms and conditions. After all, these animals were aliens: they brought their own culture, their own way of doing things. Indigenous liberals argued that they could fit in by doing the jobs no-one else wanted, and, as refugees, they bought into this willingly. The problem was getting to grips with the mechanics of ‘fitting in’.

And the mentality of the inquisitors was contagious. It was difficult not to become critical of one another. More than once Elijah sensed a raised eyebrow as he squeezed his bulk in stages through an internal door frame. And Johnson’s habit of hopping around upstairs provoked overt criticism when the impact of his lower limbs made items fall off tables and shelves. Bickering had begun to break out, and open displays of disapproval grew more frequent.

Eventually Olaf spoke up. ‘Guys,’ he said, laying a huge paw on the table. ‘We’ve got to stop this. If we don’t we’ll be lost – I mean, who else is going to support us through the process? And if we don’t get through how can our wives and children hope to follow us?’

At that every animal began to weep silently.

‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’ Olaf said, wiping a tear of his own. ‘I know the whole thing’s emotive. But I have an idea I’d like to put before you.’

‘Please do,’ Nocturnus sniffed. ‘I think we all feel in need of inspiration.’

‘Well,’ Olaf said, smoothing the fur on his chest, ‘it’s this. I’ve been doing some unofficial research at my placement, and I’ve overheard some interesting snippets. As a result I think I’m beginning to get a feel for how they do things here.’

The animals leaned forward attentively.

‘To make our position stronger I propose we form a cartel – apparently that’s what it’s called. I heard them talking about it yesterday. It works this way: first you compile a ‘skill package’ – and think of all the specialist skills we have between us – then you aim it a specific market, then you develop a thing called a “tender”, which just means a quote for a specified contract, and finally you quote lower than anyone else, and then you’re in. If it goes well it will mean we all get accepted at the same time.’

‘But mightn’t that make us a tad unpopular with the locals?’ Elijah asked. As an elephant his basic nature was conciliatory, at least where humans were concerned.

‘What choice do we have?’ Olaf asked. ‘It’s obvious their tactic is to pick us off one by one. But if we stand together and offer them something they realise they want, surely they’ll grab our paws off?’

‘Or claws,’ said Nocturnus.

Olaf inclined his head graciously. ‘Indeed,’ he said. ‘The best strategy, I’ve come to realise, is to appeal to their baser instincts. God knows there’s enough of them.’

‘What would we call ourselves?’ Johnson asked.

‘I’ve been giving that some thought too. It seems they like something vaguely positive, as long as it doesn’t actually mean anything. I propose “Beastly Solutions”. We can set up a training agency.’

Elijah waved his trunk triumphantly. ‘You’re a genius,’ he said. ‘That’s exactly what we’re designed to provide.’

There was a general clamour of approval.

Olaf had studied the speech patterns of the managers at his placement. ‘At the end of the day the reality is I think we’ve agreed a way forward,’ he concluded.

After that, each evening when they returned from their placements they sat together at the table and brainstormed. Olaf acted as chair, and between them they listed a formidable range of training modules they could feel confident of delivering:

hardcore fishing (‘seal methodology and beyond’), unmechanised lifting and handling (‘polar and equatorial applications available on request’), voice training for the timid (‘roar your way to confidence’), flight for beginners (‘including altitude reconnaissance and freestyle perching – no equipment needed’), and finally diet and terrain (‘addressing the vegan/carnivore debate – is it you or the landscape?’).

‘God knows, I feel empowered,’ breathed Johnson when Olaf read this back to them. ‘You’re right – when they hear this they’ll snatch our paws off.’

‘Or claws,’ said Nocturnus.

Olaf beamed at them. ‘There’s a very approachable personal assistant at my placement,’ he said. ‘She’s taken to stroking my fur. I’m sure she’ll type this up for us. After that all we have to do is submit it to the inquisitors.’

The following day, as hoped, he brought back to the Unit a neatly typed sheaf of A4 in a ring binder. The animals examined it and glowed with a sense of achievement. They all agreed that Olaf should have the honour of presenting it.

‘We enter this as equal partners, but you should be first amongst us,’ said Nocturnus.

‘Hear! Hear!’ the others concurred warmly.

They slept soundly that night, but were woken abruptly in the early hours by loud and repetitive thuds against the reinforced glass of their bedroom windows. Johnson, with a single bound, was first to check what was happening.

‘Christ, mates,’ he said, ‘it’s bloody vigilantes chucking things!’

Outside stood a spiteful-looking mob in dark anoraks and hoods. They held banners saying ‘Human Rights, Animal Wrongs’ and ‘Jobs for the Boys – and we mean Boys’.

Olaf came to the window. He put his paw on Johnson’s sloping shoulder and peered out over his head. ‘You have to wonder who monitors these cameras,’ he said. ‘Someone’s trying to stop us before we even get started.’

‘Best stay out of sight,’ said Elijah. ‘If they see you it will only inflame them.’

So they huddled together by the far wall waiting for the angry sounds to abate. After about an hour they heard the wail of police sirens.

‘Thank God, they’ve come to save us,’ said Nocturnus. Within a minute they heard a series of violent thumps and then the rending of wood, followed by heavy footfall up the stairs. A large police officer, with a face like a slab of steak, burst into the room.

‘Here they are,’ he shouted behind him, and quickly the room filled with his clones.

Olaf stood to address them. He clasped his paws together and spoke from the heart. ‘Thank you so much for coming to help us officers,’ he said. ‘We are in your debt.’

‘Help you?’ Steak-face exclaimed. ‘We’ve come to arrest you. Bloody agitators.’

The stunned animals hadn’t foreseen this. Their time in the unit had made them placatory, and as the police rushed towards them they put up no fight. They were handcuffed and chained and led through the protesters, who spat and swore at them, while the police looked only towards their vehicles. Within half an hour they found themselves in locked cages through which, at least, they were able to see one another.

‘This must be a mistake,’ said Nocturnus. ‘They can’t realise what’s really happened.’

Olaf looked deeply crestfallen. ‘I’m so sorry, my brothers,’ he said. ‘I led you into this. The whole thing is down to my folly.’

‘Don’t be…..’ Johnson began, but at that moment a tranquiliser dart whistled into Olaf’s side. His eyes clouded and he collapsed to the ground. More police appeared with a hoist, and he was loaded onto a cart. He managed to lift a weakened paw in farewell as he was hauled away.

Nocturnus began to weep in heartrending screeches, and quickly the others joined him. But one by one they fell silent as their captors returned, shot them with darts from close range, and dragged their bodies off.

They woke sometime later on a concrete loading bay by the sea, in what smelled like morning air, slumped together again in one enormous cage. A cargo boat stood alongside, and before they could gather themselves an official of some sort thrust a rough bundle of papers through the bars.

‘These are your deportation orders,’ he said. ‘You’re going to Bremerhaven – perhaps they’ll like you better there.’

As they were taking this in, the jib of a huge crane lowered towards the cage. A small group of dock workers came forward to attach it, and the animals were lifted onto the deck of the boat. Almost immediately the vessel raised anchor, and as it started to pull away Olaf looked back at the shore and began to sing quietly. It was a song he had learnt as a cub from his mother. The others, who knew the song because they had learnt it from their own mothers, gradually joined him, until they were all singing.

The dock workers stood silently at the quayside, looking out and listening to these strangely affecting cadences as they faded slowly into the sea. They realised something in those disparate voices, lifting in unison, was unusual, and found themselves leaning towards the water, as if to make sense of the dying notes. But, though they strained forward as the boat shrank into the horizon, the only sound that reached them from the far and growing distance, was the keening call of wild animals.

Mike Fox’s stories have appeared in, or been accepted for publication by, The London Journal of Fiction, Popshot, Confingo, Into the Void, Fictive Dream, The Nottingham Review, Structo, Prole, Fairlight Books, Riggwelter, Communion, Pixel Heart and Footnote. His story The Homing Instinct, first published in Confingo, was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). Another story, The Violet Eye, has recently been published by Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook. Contact Mike at: wwwpolyscribe.co.uk

Contents Drawer Issue 13

 

Image via Pixabay

It’s the Little Things – Helen French

We moved to this village despite the warnings that the locals would never accept us. We moved because I fell in love with my house, with its thatched roof, small orchard and a river running through the grounds.

The neighbours are set far apart from one another. You could murder someone without being heard. But I’m not worried about murder.

I’m worried about getting home.

Tonight I had one too many drinks at the local pub, in a stupid attempt to fit in and perhaps it worked because most of those drinks were bought for me. Everyone was surprisingly generous.

But the problem now is that I can’t find my house. It’s as if it’s been stolen from the earth and I am doomed to spend the rest of my days searching country lanes, desperately looking for it.

I’ve left my phone at the pub – or it’s been stolen – so there’s no point calling anyone for help. I plod onwards.

Then I run.

Where the hell has it gone?

I find it at the edge of town, between a bridge I’ve never seen before and a huge oak tree that I don’t remember. But it is the building I know and love.

I know, because we replaced the door numbers when we moved in: 74. The flat bronze digits are shiny and new and exactly as I placed them.

But my key doesn’t fit in the door.

There’s no spare key under the mat, even though I put one there two weeks ago and have not moved it since.

I knock on the windows but my husband is in London on a work do and won’t be back until the early hours.

Nevertheless, a light goes on upstairs and I’m happy because someone is home! David must’ve come back early.

All the rest of the lights pop on like a firework show. Yes! I think, before realising it’s not possible for one man to switch them on so quickly.

Many footsteps dash down the stairs, but no one answers the door.

I run around to the side of the house and press my face against the window to the utility room.

Oh. Oh! There are tiny people in there, no bigger than knee-high, each holding even smaller knives.

I shout: “Get out of my house! I’ll call the police!”

The funny thing is, we’ve got double glazing, but I can hear the little things sharpening those knives. One of them looks a bit like Mr Avery from the pub, only smaller.

And is that Karen, the bartender? They’re all grinning with jagged teeth that look like they would be good for pulling meat apart.

I want to run but when I turn around the landscape has changed again. There are no roads at all.

I’m tired. I must be seeing things.

I look back through the window. Some of the things that I’m seeing… they see me.

They laugh. They hold up their knives. And the windows shatter.

Helen French is a writer, book hoarder, TV-soaker-upper, digital project executive and biased parent who grew up in Merseyside and now lives in Hertfordshire, UK. Her short fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Factor Four and Flash Fiction Online. You can find her on Twitter at @helenfrench.

Contents Drawer Issue 13

 

Image via Pixabay

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